Family Budget Counseling

by Gary Foreman

It started when a couple from church asked Eva Marie and Chris to help them with a budgeting question. A few years and about 35 couples later, they've seen some patterns that can help others achieve their financial goals.

They live in Prescott Valley, Arizona. Eva Marie is a housewife and mother. Chris is an airline pilot who learned business administration in college. Some might call them amateurs. But their lack of professional standing in the financial services industry frees them from many potential biases.

"Generally people come to us because they can't meet their bills or they want to accomplish something and they don't see how they're going to do it. Buying a house, saving for college. The first thing we do is to tell them to bring their checkbook and an idea of what their monthly bills and expenditures are and we sit down with them and fill out a budget."

According to Eva Marie, they zero in on the target quickly. "You'd be amazed at how many people don't understand where their money's going. Then we work on ways to cut expenses."

What areas are most fruitful for budget cutting? "What people are most unrealistic about is their entertainment expenses. And eating out, take-out and all that you don't consider part of your food budget. People don't generally budget for maintenance of things like cars and homes. They don't expect it so they're caught off guard. And a lot of people are surprised at how much they spend on gifts."

She goes on to explain that sometimes spending is just a symptom. "Sometimes there's marital issues that have to be resolved. They might not see eye to eye on goals. Who spends what. Who's responsible for what.

"After we set the budget, we set where their pay periods are and when their bills are due. My husband has worked it out so that you put aside about half the money you'll need for bills the month before. What that does is you don't end up spending all of your paycheck on bills and having nothing left to live on. It spreads the load over a four-week period."

When asked about the biggest pitfall, Eva Marie answers without hesitation. "Credit cards. Not having a handle on their spending and having their priorities set. Credit cards are the way that gets manifested. The root cause is that they don't know what they want to spend and they don't know why they want to spend it. You have to prioritize what you want to spend your money on if you ever want to accomplish anything with it."

One area of their counseling has caused a bit of controversy. It's also brought some surprising statistics to light. "We find that in two-income families, especially if they have child care expenses, the wife ends up taking home maybe two bucks an hour. That's on a typical $6 to $8 an hour job. Child care is running $75 per week per child. You've got the hidden costs. All the meals you pick up because you don't have time to cook. The things you buy because you don't have time to make them. The people you hire to do things for you because you don't have time to do them yourself. We have found that most people end up taking a nominal amount of money home or they're losing money. They don't realize it. They're shocked. We tell them it's not what you make. It's what you keep."

The controversy revolves around those who feel that a woman is not complete unless she works outside the home. Some wives coming for help share that view. Eva Marie is unapologetic in her rebuttal. "Being a wife and a mom is a job. It's not demeaning. That's a major issue. They think that they'll be less than a complete woman if they're not out there working and raising a family and taking care of their husband and taking care of their house."

Then she shares the surprise. "One of the statistics that I love to quote is a research study that came out of Harvard that said that a man who has a wife that stays at home, on average earns 25% more than their counterparts doing the same jobs that have working wives. The stress load is lower. The husband is freed up from the household responsibilities. He concentrates completely on work. He has the flexibility to take a class or take on another project."

How successful have their students been in going to a one- income lifestyle? "Younger couples go one of two ways: Either they love it, or they have a really difficult time with it." To make the arrangement work the wife needs to learn new skills. "I work with the wife when she quits working to make sure that her house runs efficiently. Working with setting up menus and planning meals. There's a lot of stuff that's not taught anymore. We're talking about people who grew up in families where both parents worked. It's a real educational process."

She's quick to point out that taking control of family finances is not easy. "They have to be totally committed to it. There will be challenges. There will be times that they'll say that this is not going to work."

But Eva Marie also knows the signs that show the effort is paying dividends. "When you're out of debt first. Then when you learn to live within your means. Within six to nine months you're going to find yourself better off."

What advice would she give to people who are considering finding help, but are reluctant to make the first step? "The people that really need the help can have a problem with pride. They don't want to let anyone know how bad they've got it and they're just going to struggle along. People who do financial counseling have seen it all. We've seen people $35,000 in debt with bill collectors calling."

Her conclusion? "If you think you can do better with your finances but don't know how, seek some help because it will pay off."

Thanks to Eva Marie for sharing her time and her experience.

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